The Garbage-Problem Solved! Plasma Gasification

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This is the way of the future. It will forever rid us of land-fills.

Transcript of The Garbage-Problem Solved! Plasma Gasification

By Michael Behar - It sounds as if someone just dropped a tricycle into a meat grinder. Im sitting inside a narrow conference room at a research facility in Bristol, Connecticut, chatting with Joseph Longo, the founder and CEO of Startech Environmental Corporation. As we munch on takeout Subway sandwiches, a plate-glass window is the only thing separating us from the adjacent lab, which contains a glowing caldera of plasma three times as hot as the surface of the sun. Every few minutes theres a horrific clanking noisegrinding followed by a thunderous voomp, like the sound a gas barbecue makes when it first ignites. Is it supposed to do that? I ask Longo nervously. Yup, he says. Thats normal. Despite his 74 years, Longo bears an unnerving resemblance to the longtime cover boy of Mad magazine, Alfred E. Neuman, who shrugs off nuclear Armageddon with the glib catchphrase What, me worry? Both share red hair, a smattering of freckles and a toothy grin. When such a man tells me Im perfectly safe from a 30,000F arc of man-made lightning heating a vat of plasma that his employees are controlling in the next roomwell, Im not completely reassured. (more) To put me at ease, Longo calls in David Lynch, who manages the demonstration facility. Theres no flame or fire inside. Its just electricity, Lynch assures me of the multimillion-dollar system that took Longo almost two decades to design and build. Then the two usher me into the lab, where the gleaming 15-foot-tall machine theyve named the Plasma Converter stands in the center of the room. The entire thing takes up about as much space as a two-car garage, surprisingly compact for a machine that can consume nearly any type of wastefrom dirty diapers to chemical weaponsby annihilating toxic materials in a process as old as the universe itself. Called plasma gasification, it works a little like the big bang, only backward (you get nothing from something). Inside a sealed vessel made of stainless steel and filled with a stable gaseither pure nitrogen or, as in this case, ordinary aira 650-volt current passing between two electrodes rips electrons from the air, converting the gas into plasma. Current flows continuously through this newly formed plasma, creating a field of extremely intense energy very much like lightning. The radiant energy of the plasma arc is so powerful, it disintegrates trash into its constituent elements by tearing apart molecular bonds. The system is capable of breaking down pretty much anything except nuclear waste, the isotopes of which are indestructible. The only by-products are an obsidian-like glass used as a raw material for numerous applications, including bathroom tiles and high-strength asphalt, and a synthesis gas, or syngasa mixture of primarily hydrogen and carbon monoxide that can be converted into a variety of marketable fuels, including ethanol, natural gas and hydrogen. Perhaps the most amazing part of the process is that its self-sustaining. Just like your toaster, Startechs Plasma Converter draws its power from the electrical grid to get started. The initial voltage is about equal to the zap from a police stun gun. But once the cycle is under way, the 2,200F syngas is fed into a cooling system, generating steam that drives turbines to produce electricity. About two thirds of the power is siphoned off to run the converter; the rest can be used on-site for heating or electricity, or sold back to the utility grid. Even a blackout would not stop the operation of the facility, Longo says. It all sounds far too good to be true. But the technology works. Over the past decade, half a dozen companies have been developing plasma technology to turn garbage into energy. The best renewable energy is the one we complain about the most: municipal solid waste, says Louis Circeo, the director of plasma research at the Georgia Institute of Technology. It will prove cheaper to take garbage to a plasma plant than it is to dump it on a landfill. A Startech machine that costs roughly $250 million could handle 2,000 tons of waste daily, approximately what a city of a million people amasses in that time span. Large municipalities typically haul their trash to landfills, where the operator charges a tipping fee to dump the waste. The national average is $35 a ton, although the cost can be more than

twice that in the Northeast (where land is scarce, tipping fees are higher). And the tipping fee a city pays doesnt include the price of trucking the garbage often hundreds of miles to a landfill or the cost of capturing leaky methanea greenhouse gasfrom the decomposing waste. In a city with an average tipping fee, a $250-million converter could pay for itself in about 10 years, and thats without factoring in the money made from selling the excess electricity and syngas. After that break-even point, its pure profit. Someday very soon, cities might actually make money from garbage. Talking Trash It was a rainy morning when I pulled up to Startech R&D to see Longo waiting for me in the parking lot. Wearing a bright yellow oxford shirt, a striped tie and blue pinstriped pants, he dashed across the blacktop to greet me as I stepped from my rental car. A street-smart Brooklyn native, Longo was an only child raised by parents who worked long hours at a local factory that made baseballs and footballs. He volunteered to fight in Korea as a paratrooper after a friend was killed in action. Hes fond of antiquated slang like attaboy and shills (as in those shills stole my patents) and is old-school enough to have only recently abandoned the protractors, pencils and drafting tables that he used to design his original Plasma Converter in favor of computers. Today, Longo is meeting with investors from U.S. Energy, a trio of veteran wastedisposal executives who recently formed a partnership to build the first plasmagasification plant on Long Island, New York. They own a transfer station (where garbage goes for sorting en route to landfills) and are in the process of buying six Startech converters to handle 3,000 tons of construction debris a day trucked from sites around the state. Its mostly old tile, wood, nails, glass, metal and wire all mixed together, one of the projects partners, Troy Caruso, tells me. For the demonstration, Longo prepares a sampling of typical garbagebottles of leftover prescription drugs, bits of fiberglass insulation, a half-empty can of Slim-Fast. A conveyer belt feeds the trash into an auger, which shreds and crushes it into pea-size morsels (that explains the deafening grinding sound) before stuffing it into the plasma-reactor chamber. The room is warm and humid, and a dull hum emanates from the machinery. Caruso and his partners, Paul Marazzo and Michael Nuzzi, are silent at first. Theyve seen the demo before. But as more trash vanishes into the converter, they become increasingly animated, spouting off facts and figures about how the machine will revolutionize their business. This technology eliminates the landfill, which is 80 percent of our costs, Nuzzi says. And we can use it to generate fuel at the back end, adds Marazzo, who then asks Lynch if the converter can handle chunks of concrete (answer: yes). The bottom line is that nobody wants a landfill in their backyard, Nuzzi tells me. New York City is already paying an astronomical $90 a ton to get rid of its trash. According to Startech, a few 2,000-ton-per-day plasma-gasification plants could do it for $36. Sell the syngas and surplus electricity, and youd actually net $15 a ton. Gasification is not just environmentally friendly, Nuzzi says. Its a good business decision. The converter were watching vaporize Slim-Fast is a mini version of Startechs technology, capable of consuming five tons a day of solid waste, or about what 2,200 Americans toss in the trash every 24 hours. Fueled with garbage from the local dump, the converter is fired up whenever Longo pitches visiting clients. Longo has been talking with the National Science Foundation about installing a system at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. The Vietnamese government is considering buying one to get rid of stockpiles of Agent Orange that the U.S. military left

behind after the war. Investors from China, Poland, Japan, Romania, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, the U.K., Mexico and Canada have all entered contract negotiations with Startech after making the pilgrimage to Bristol to see Longos dog-and-pony show. Startech isnt the only company using plasma to turn waste into a source of clean energy. A handful of start-upsGeoplasma, Recovered Energy, PyroGenesis, EnviroArc and Plasco Energy, among othershave entered the market in the past decade. But Longo, who has worked in the garbage business for four decades, is perhaps the industrys most passionate founding father. Whats so devilishly wonderful about plasma gasification is that its completely circular, he says. It takes everything back to its fundamental components in a way thats beautiful. Although all plasma gasification systems recapture syngas to turn into fuel, Startechs Starcell system seems to be ahead of the pack in its ability to economically convert the substance into eco-friendly and competitively priced fuels. A lot of other gasification technologies require multiple steps. This is a one-step process, says Patrick Davis of the U.S. Department of Energys office of hydrogen production and delivery, which has awarded Longos company almost $1 million in research grants. You put the waste in the reactor and you get out the syngas. Thats it. The Garbage Man After his tour of duty in Korea, Longo put himself through night school at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. In 1959, engineering degree in hand, he got a job at American Machine & Foundry (AMF)the same company that today runs the worlds largest chain of bowling alleysdesigning hardened silos for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as Titan and Minuteman. There was never a time I can r